'Cleaned Up' Gay Baths Fight to Survive Closure Threats

Times Staff Writers

The private rooms at Mac's Bathhouse in Silver Lake are a hot ticket on Saturday nights. Well-dressed men with gym bags start arriving at the labyrinth-like club before sunset, and by early evening a "No Vacancy" sign dangles beneath a stern AIDS warning posted on the cashier's window, signaling that the 50 personal cubicles are taken.

Those who come later are forced to accept semi-private accommodations. As they trade their street clothes for towels and settle into bunk beds, steam rooms and each other's arms, a gay pornographic movie plays silently on a television and an empty Jacuzzi burbles near the rounded walkway known as the tunnel of love.

Soft voices echo along the dimly lit gray and black corridors where the private rooms are located, and the faint aroma of marijuana wafts from one area. In other cubicles the doors are left open to reveal nude men, alone, paired off or in groups.

Someone May Grab

"Try to walk down the middle of the hallways," says Doug Myers, owner of the club that is known as the Cadillac of bathhouses. "Otherwise someone might grab you."

The fact that some men are still grabbing each other at the baths--despite the gruesome specter of AIDS--is clear to anyone who has visited Mac's or the Compound or the Melrose Baths. Not so clear is what the future holds for these clubs, which have been abandoned by both gay leaders and a large percentage of their former patrons.

The clubs still in business sometimes are busy, but there are fewer of them. Of 25 or more operating in Los Angeles County before the AIDS outbreak, 12 are still licensed.

After years of hand-wringing and debate, the county Board of Supervisors today is expected to adopt new health regulations that could pull the stopper on the surviving bathhouses. The supervisors' own AIDS Commission, refueling old arguments, recommended closure two weeks ago on grounds that the baths encourage unsafe sex.

But the club's owners, who maintain they have have cleaned up their act, have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep themselves in business.

Myers and other owners have adopted the siege mentality of people who find themselves battling long odds. Some have emerged from the shadows of the gay underground to deliver the message that their clubs, which have been vilified by many people, are partners in the fight to stem the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Their weapons, they say, are the health brochures and condoms that are freely distributed to customers under county regulations. Bathhouse operators are also quick to point out that they have closed their "orgy rooms" and posted signs listing the most threatening sex acts, such as anal intercourse without condoms and the exchange of body fluids. In addition, they say bathhouse monitors warn customers when they are practicing unsafe sex.

"We all have lots of friends who have died of AIDS," said Myers, 53, a mild-mannered former beautician with a life-sized photo of a nude man on his office wall. "If we thought we were part of the problem, we could not look in the mirror. But we're not."

Marty Benson, who co-owns the Melrose Baths, the Midtowne Spa and other clubs across the county, said he will file a lawsuit against the county if the closure order goes through. Benson contends that it is ridiculous to blame the bathhouse owners for encouraging the spread of AIDS. "Why would I want to kill all of my customers?" he asked.

Scott D. R. Goulet, a co-owner of the Hollywood Spa, said bathhouses have been misrepresented. "I feel like I'm the good guy in this scenario," said Goulet, one of only four operators who responded to interview requests. "I provide the safehouse."

Despite these arguments, many critics continue to paint the bathhouse operators as callous, at the very least. Rabbi Allen Freehling, who chairs the AIDS Commission, said the bathhouses are a source of "societal pollution" that must be eliminated. "The status quo can no longer be maintained because the status quo is a killer," Freehling said.

The supervisors appear intent to ban bathhouses where "high-risk sexual activity takes place." But because of possible legal problems, county lawyers are advising that the board stop short of an outright prohibition against all bathhouses.

Officials would enforce the law by using undercover investigators--either sheriff's deputies, health inspectors or private investigators--to determine if unsafe sex is taking place. Or, less likely, they can rely on testimony from bathhouse patrons, officials said.

"It would amount to a case-by-case approach because a blanket ban would not be possible," said Steven Carnevale, principal deputy county counsel who was still working out the legal language Monday.

The supervisors could also impose restrictions that would require bathhouse owners to put viewing windows on private rooms or allow only one person at a time to use those rooms, he said.

Earlier Attempts

Today's vote will not be the first time the county has sought to regulate bathhouses as a precaution against AIDS. The board passed a more sweeping measure in December, 1985, but the next year Superior Court Judge John L. Cole ruled that the county, with only a few exceptions, fell "woefully short" of proving that its regulations would check the spread of the disease.

The county had sued three bathhouses in an attempt to force them to comply with the regulations requiring owners to eliminate private rooms, closely police their customers and ban high-risk forms of sexual contact. But Cole refused to force bathhouse owners to adhere to those restrictions.

The judge also noted that some of the county Health Department's own doctors did not agree with the county's definition of "unsafe" sex practices that were banned under the regulations.

Dr. Ellen Alkon, the current medical director for public health, said recently she favors shutting down a bathhouse where unsafe activities may be promoting the possible spread of AIDS. But at the same time, she defended some bathhouses as places where education about AIDS and innocuous socializing take place.

"The majority of people who have AIDS have never been to a bathhouse, so there would not be a major impact on the AIDS epidemic," she said.

The Spread of AIDS

According to the latest statistics, there were 4,243 confirmed cases of AIDS in Los Angeles County and 62% of those stricken with the disease have died.

Regardless of the possible legal entanglements, people close to the county say the idea appears to have unanimous support. Supervisor Ed Edelman, who opposed strict county regulations against the bathhouses in the past, says that he will probably support the effort this time. Edelman will also suggest that the county create new educational programs aimed at intravenous drug users and the minority community to combat the spread of the disease.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a longstanding foe, contends that the bathhouse owners profit from "blood money."

"I feel that we have a right under the public health laws of this state to shut down bathhouses for unsafe sexual activities that have taken place, just like we have the right to shut down restaurants for unsafe food," Antonovich said. "We need to save lives."

Most gay leaders have also come down on the side of closure or remain neutral. Many point out that the baths have already closed in San Francisco because of dwindling patronage, although owners were able to successfully challenge city efforts to close them down. New York City, with the nation's largest number of AIDS cases, has shut down two bathhouses since restrictions went into effect in 1985; a "handful" remain open, officials say. San Diego supervisors are now considering regulating bathhouses in that city.

Source of Embarrassment

Other gay activists privately admit that they are embarrassed by the fact that the baths still exist in Los Angeles.

"One would think this was not the time for people to be frolicking around in towels," said Gavin Cort-Brackett, director of a group called Aid for AIDS. Added West Hollywood City Councilman Stephen Schulte, a gay activist: "There are more important battles to be fought."

Schulte, Cort-Brackett and others who usually present a united front on gay rights issues will not be joining the bathhouse owners at today's supervisors meeting. Neither will the leaders of the major gay political organizations.

Eric E. Rofes, who heads the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood, said he has received hate mail from gays who resent the fact that he is remaining neutral. Lynn Sheppod, the co-chair of the powerful Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, said the bathhouses controversy is a no-win situation.

"Everybody wishes that it would go away," she said, "no matter which side they're on."

But not everyone in the gay community goes along with the leadership.

Promoters of Safety

One of them is John O'Brien, a 39-year-old bathhouse patron. O'Brien said he supports the argument that the baths actually promote safe sex practices and are preferable to other meeting places such as alleys, parks and drive-in movies. He also accuses bathhouse opponents of making a morality play in the guise of a health issue.

"I have been an activist for 20 years and I see this as an important issue of sexual freedom," O'Brien said. "Liberace never went to the baths. The large majority of people at bathhouses are having safe sex. But I also support people's right to have unsafe sex. "

Morris Kight, one of the first gay leaders in Los Angeles, is also on the side of the baths. Kight said the clubs should be used as a way to educate people to the dangers of unsafe sex. He contends that those who favor closure, including gays, are guilty of anti-gay hysteria.

"There will be lasting scars within the gay community if the gay groups do not speak out against closing the baths," Kight said. "It would be a serious defeat for medical sanity."

Others who battled for gay rights in Los Angeles, such as Bill Lake of the Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality, see the baths as a symbol of liberation left over from the more innocent pre-AIDS era, when a spirit of sexual abandon reigned at the baths. Some also see the closing of the baths as a step toward further restrictions on gay rights.

Thousands Still Visit

Like a lot of gays, Lake said he abandoned the bathhouses after the full impact of the AIDS crisis became known. But the baths, which charge between $5 and $20 for a visit, continue to attract thousands of patrons each month.

County health officials estimate that nearly 10,000 visits are made to the clubs every month. Consuelo Olds, the public health services director, said the statistics are based on reports from health department workers who make unannounced monthly inspections of the baths. Some owners estimate that 6,000 men now use the baths each month.

Dr. Gary Richwald from the UCLA School of Public Health surveyed more than 800 men in seven Los Angeles bathhouses for a study that will be published later this year in the Journal of Sex Research. Ten percent of those answering a questionnaire indicated that they engaged in unsafe sex practices. On the other hand, the study--funded by bathhouse owners--showed that most patrons relied on the baths for AIDS education.

O'Brien stays at bathhouses when he travels. He also visits the Compound in North Hollywood now and then. One of his favorite activities is the weekend group masturbation sessions, a relatively new attraction. Most of the bathhouses also hold special "Dynasty" nights in honor of the popular soap opera.

"There is still a way to view a lot of people," O'Brien said. "That's one of the psychological draws. But there's less interacting. People are aware of the do's and don'ts."

Robert R. Pereida owns the Compound, which came in for some bad publicity recently when it ran a promotion called "twinkie teen night" that some people charged was aimed at high schoolers and not the adult college students that Pereida said he was trying to attract.

Pereida, who worked as an operations manager for Merrill Lynch for 20 years before investing his money in the Compound, claims that the club is a distant cousin of the pre-AIDS era baths. He proudly points to his small exercise room and the sun deck as "evidence" that he promotes healthful concerns.

"People who see this come away with a totally different impression of what the bathhouse of the '80s is all about," Pereida said.

Yet the atmosphere is still sexual. The television that hangs from the ceiling in the Jacuzzi room features a gay porno movie and erotic sketches of men line the walls. There is also the strange spectacle of men shuffling around in towels in the middle of the afternoon.

Pereida claims that business, though down, is pretty good. He will not reveal exact membership figures, but said the club, which advertises itself as a "Man's Private Reserve," attracts 60 people on a good night. "This is not a big money-grinding machine," he said.

Benson said his business has dropped by 50% since the AIDS crisis began, but he does not expect it to bottom out any further. The jolly and profane club owner, who keeps a graphic nude painting of himself in his office, said he doubts men will ever stop using the baths. "People are going to do what they want to do if they're not hurting anyone else," he said.

The Melrose bathhouse is marked by a tiny red and green neon sign that simply says "Baths." There are 30 private rooms, a common area, a Jacuzzi and a television room. As Benson leads a tour of the acrid-smelling facility with its red and black checkerboard floor, chubby men in towels padded by. "Most of my patrons are older," Benson said. "We don't get a lot of Hercules types."

Barrett S. Litt, Benson's attorney, said the county has no legal grounds for closing their baths. He said that all of the evidence shows that the clubs promote safe sex practices.

Litt contends that those who oppose the bathhouses are giving in to hysteria.

"The images of 5-to-10 years ago have no real application to what happens today," Litt said. "The baths have just become a scapegoat. . . . But they have changed."

Myers sees a bright future for the baths, despite the recent tribulations. As he strolls past the expensive French paneling, the trendy track lighting and the other high-tech toys that grace Mac's, his 17,000-square-foot fantasy land, the former hairdresser seems proud of what he has created.

"This used to be a wild and woolly place," he said. "It was like the latter days of Rome. Now it's much more subdued. . . . But we still have something to offer."

BATHHOUSES IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY

While there once were as many as 25 gay bathhouses in Los Angeles County, fear of AIDS and tougher licensing regulations have forced more than half out of business. These 12 licensed clubs remain, according to the Los Angeles Police Commission and the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Clubs and Location Operators The KLYT, 132 E. 4th Place, Los Angeles Yie-Bin Ko Mac's, 2801 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake Doug Myers Hollywood Spa, 1650 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood Scott D.R. Goulet Roman Holiday, 12814 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles George G. Gazzaruso Corral Club, 3747 Cahuenga Blvd., Studio City Ted Ross CBC, 4424 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles Eddie S. Sigsbey and Michael B. Fruscos Midtowne Spa, 615 S. Kohler St., Los Angeles Marty R. Benson The Compound, 5636 Vineland Ave., Robert R. Pereida North Hollywood 1350 Club North, 4653 Lankershim Blvd., Charles J. Harris North Hollywood Roman Holiday, 14435 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys George G. Gazzaruso Melrose Baths, 7269 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles Marty R. Benson 1350 West Club, 510 W. Anaheim St., Wilmington Glen Moering

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